In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Revolution and Reaction in Central America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Solidarity Movements
  • The Peace Process and the Transition to Democracy
  • Religion
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Politics of Culture
  • Testimonies and Memoirs
  • Democracy and Reconciliation in the Neoliberal Era

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Latin American Studies Revolution and Reaction in Central America
Jeffrey Gould, Christopher Eichstedt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0070


The cycles of revolution and counterrevolution that characterized the Latin American Cold War reached their climax in the outbreak of violent conflicts that engulfed Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. After the defeat of Cuban-style revolutionary movements throughout Latin America in the 1960s and the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the success of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 gave the Latin American Left a renewed sense of optimism about the possibility of revolutionary change. In El Salvador and Guatemala, the combination of massive popular mobilizations and armed revolutionary groups appeared to be on the verge of replicating the Sandinistas’ success. This optimism, however, proved to be short lived. In the 1980s, the United States, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, escalated support for counterrevolutionary forces in order to “roll-back” the revolutionary threat. Thereafter, the conflicts degenerated into brutal, seemingly intractable, violence. The peace initiative launched by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias in 1987, the latest in a series of domestic and international efforts to resolve the crisis, finally offered a way out of the violence and allowed for tentative steps toward the democratization of the isthmus. Largely ignored by foreign academics before the revolutionary period, Central America experienced a boom in scholarship during this period as journalists and social scientists sought to explain the conflicts and situate them in their historical context. Nonetheless, the majority of this scholarship rested upon a weak historiographical tradition in the region and bore the marks of the ideological conflicts of the Cold War. Though the volume of works published diminished in the 1990s, scholars began to add archival research to the sustained ethnographic fieldwork that had been underway since the 1980s to further address issues such as the development of capitalism in the region, the relations between popular and revolutionary movements, and ethnic relations. The focus of this collection is overwhelmingly on Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the countries that were in the spotlight during the 1980s. Costa Rica and Honduras are addressed in the General Overviews in works that ask why revolutionary movements did not occur there, as well as in the literature on US Intervention that analyzes their roles in the Contra War against the Sandinistas.

General Overviews

There are remarkably few overviews or comparative works that address the region as a whole, likely due to the difficulty of integrating what have been previously written as separate national narratives. Torres-Rivas 1993 paved the way for comparative studies in the 1960s, raising questions that are still of fundamental importance for much of the more recent scholarship. Pérez-Brignoli 1989 and Woodward 1999 provide excellent introductions to the history of the region as a whole. Dunkerley 1990 provides a very comprehensive political history of the 20th century. Williams 1994, Paige 1997, and Brockett 1998 examine the relationship between agrarian transformations and political conflicts. Vilas 1995 provides a comparative analysis of capitalist modernization in each country.

  • Brockett, Charles. Land, Power, and Poverty: Agrarian Transformation and Political Conflict in Central America. 2d ed. Winchester, MA: Allen and Unwin, 1998.

    A history of Central America’s agro-export model from the 19th century through the 1980s. He argues that the agrarian transformation’s detrimental effects on the rural poor were responsible for the political conflict. Based primarily on secondary sources. Useful as an introduction to Central American agriculture, but specialists might find this less useful.

  • Dunkerley, James. Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America. New York: Verso, 1990.

    Comprehensive and extremely lengthy political history of Central America since independence. Attempts to explain similarities and differences between the nations. Strongest are the latter sections on the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s in Nicaragua and El Salvador. A good synthesis of all the scholarship produced up to that point and most useful as an introduction for non-specialists.

  • Paige, Jeffrey M. Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Sociological analysis of the relation between coffee production and political developments in Central America. Compares the cases of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to determine why they took three distinct paths to arrive at neoliberal democracy. He concludes that their distinct landholding patterns are the primary variable. Contains a fascinating section on elite ideologies during the 1980s.

  • Pérez-Brignoli, Héctor, A Brief History of Central America. Translated by Ricardo B. Sawrey A. and Susana Strettri de Sawrey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

    A short but highly readable overview of Central American history from the pre-Columbian era through the mid-1980s. A great introduction to the region, especially for non-specialists.

  • Torres-Rivas, Edelberto. History and Society in Central America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

    Belated English translation of the classic essay “Interpretación del desarrollo social centroamericano,” originally published in 1968. Though more recent scholarship has challenged many of its arguments, it remains one of the most influential works on Central American history. Heavy focus on the economy and class relations. Contains a final chapter updating the work to cover the period from 1979 to 1991. Essential reading.

  • Vilas, Carlos. Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America. New York: Monthly Review, 1995.

    One of the most sophisticated and comprehensive analyses of why revolutionary movements occurred in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua but not Costa Rica and Honduras. Best introduction on capitalist modernization in Central America and how it affected each country differently. Argues that the revolutions were in a large part the result of the closure of peaceful, electoral options for change.

  • Williams, Robert. States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

    Challenges the conventional argument that each country had a specific form of organization of the coffee industry that could account for their political divergences (e.g., Paige 1997) by highlighting the heterogeneity of landholding patterns within each country. Instead, he proposes a form of “path analysis” that emphasizes how early choices by the state regarding labor coercion conditioned subsequent developments.

  • Woodward, Ralph Lee. Central America: A Nation Divided. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Comprehensive survey of Central American history, updated to cover the period from pre-Columbian times to the 1990s. Excellent introduction to the broader sweep of Central American history. Contains a thorough guide to the scholarship that has been produced on Central America up to the late 1990s.

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